How Sustainable are the Batteries in E-bikes and Other MTB Gadgets? We Asked a Battery Expert.

“Sure, I’m ready to hit he trail as soon as my GPS watch, e-bike, earbuds, shifter, derailleur, seat post, phone, and headlamp are fully charged. Shouldn’t be long.”

In the yea and nay tussle over modern e-bikes, concerns remain over the sustainable creation and recycling of their lithium batteries, just as the case goes with electric cars. Where does all of that lithium come from, and what can we do with it once it no longer holds a sufficient electrical charge? The origin of raw materials that make up the batteries in all of our various trail toys is a legitimate concern, so we asked some industry professionals where it all comes from, and what we can do once it becomes “waste.”

Like most electronic devices made today, e-bikes and GPS computers alike use lithium-ion batteries. According to a tech article published on How Stuff Works, ‘A typical lithium-ion battery can store 150 watt-hours of electricity in 1 kilogram of battery. A NiMH (nickel-metal hydride) battery pack can store perhaps 100 watt-hours per kilogram, although 60 to 70 watt-hours might be more typical. A lead-acid battery can store only 25 watt-hours per kilogram. Using lead-acid technology, it takes 6 kilograms to store the same amount of energy that a 1 kilogram lithium-ion battery can handle.” So Lithium-based batteries can be lighter weight, which is an essential feature of nearly any mountain bike product.

While Chile and Bolivia reportedly hold the largest deposits of lithium on earth, it’s the Sonora Lithium Mine in Sonora Mexico, Thacker Pass Lithium Project in Nevada, USA, and the Woodgina Lithium Project in Western Australia that produce the most lithium per annum. Four of the other top-ten lithium producing mines are located in Australia, and the final ninth and tenth slots on the global extraction list are taken by mines in Western Mali and near the Zimbabwe capital of Harare, both owned by Australian mining firms.

Like most mineral and metal extraction, mining lithium has negative effects on the natural environment and the people who live near the massive extraction sites. In one mining region of Chile, where lithium is mined through a process of brine-water evaporation, mineral extraction has used up to 65% of the region’s clean water–greatly impacting vegetable and animal farms alike.

The chemicals used to collect lithium into a marketable form, including hydrochloric acid, pollute adjacent water supplies. According to a 2018 article from WIRED, “In Australia and North America, lithium is mined from rock using more traditional methods, but still requires the use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.”

In addition to the environmental and social issues around lithium extraction, cobalt and nickel are necessary components of the batteries in our digital devices, including e-bikes. The same WIRED article mentions that “The Congo is home to ‘artisanal mines,’ where cobalt is extracted from the ground by hand, often using child labor, without protective equipment.” Roughly 65% of the world’s cobalt comes from The Democratic Republic of the Congo, where exploitation runs rampant through the mining industry.

Another article published by the Guardian reported that a large number of Congolese families have brought suit against some major American tech firms for their involvement in the Congolese cobalt trade. “The lawsuit argues that Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla all aided and abetted the mining companies that profited from the labor of children who were forced to work in dangerous conditions – conditions that ultimately led to death and serious injury.”

In short, the creation of batteries for our machines and devices should be replaced by a less environmentally and socially detrimental form of construction. We could go on with examples of human rights abuses and ecosystem mistreatment for pages, but we need to also look at the flip-side of this controversial coin; recycling.

To learn more about what happens, or can happen to lithium batteries once they no longer hold an acceptable charge, and how owners can extend the life of their battery, we interviewed Jeff Haltrecht from Call2Recycle Canada (C2R). The Toronto based recycling non-profit is working with e-bike and electric car companies, as well as municipalities, to create channels for lithium battery recycling.

How are e-bike batteries recycled, and is anyone working to improve this process?

Call2Recycle manages an elaborate network of battery collection sites to get batteries out of the market and to the right processor. They will be packed in UN-certified fire-retardant boxes and shipped per Transport Canada guidelines.

There are three methods available for processing eBike batteries1:

Direct recycling starts with dismantling and shredding of the cells and recovery of copper and aluminum. The goal is to retain the cathode crystal morphology in order to remake a new cathode.

Hydrometallurgy also starts with dismantling and shredding of the cells and recovery of copper and aluminum. The remaining black mass of metals goes through a leaching process that separates each metal and returns them to the original state with a 95% recovery rate.

Pyrometallurgy feeds battery packs and/or modules into a furnace and sends the copper to a mixed alloy product, and the aluminum and lithium to slag. The use of an electric arc furnace will result in most of the lithium turned to a dust-like powder, from which it can easily be recovered. This process has roughly a 50% recovery rate.

While some will say Hydrometallurgy is superior, we however prefer not to choose between them, instead focusing on the geographic location of processors versus where the batteries are coming from and making the effort to reduce transportation distances of the batteries.

The leading processors in North America include Lithion (Hydrometallurgy), Li-Cycle (Hydrometallurgy), and Retriev (Pyrometallurgy). There is another one or two facilities in the early planning and development stage that will come on-line between now and 2025.

Refurbishing will become another option in the future, where battery cells are diagnosed for good vs. bad and then good ones are rebuilt and sold on a marketplace as previously used. There are a few good companies working in this space now for EVs including Big Battery out of California and Spiers based in Oklahoma, and over time, this sub-industry will develop.

What parts of the battery are (or can become) toxic, and is anyone working to replace them?

Lithium based chemistries have been perfected since their first invention in 19852 and commercial application by Sony in 19913 to the point where toxicity risks are low, and generally, only occur if and when a fire ensues.

Cobalt, nickel, aluminum, and manganese are common metals paired with lithium ions to create the chemistry in the battery, and when put together in the right mixture, they are almost always in balance. Risks usually only occur when the battery pack is damaged causing a thermal event.

The use of cobalt may be decreased in coming years, but this is more due to its higher cost of mining and environmental impact than it is from the point of toxicity.

The two documented gases released during a fire are hydrogen fluoride and phosphoryl fluoride2. To mitigate the risk, Call2Recycle will be using CellblockFx fire retardant for transporting damaged, defective, or recalled e-bike batteries. This product when heated melts and encapsulates the battery and its fumes.

What steps are battery companies taking to reduce the environmental and human impacts of production? 

We believe there are three strategic decisions in the process of being made by the industry that will help reduce the environmental impact in particular, and the human impacts to a lesser degree.  

  1. Reducing or removing the use of cobalt in the lithium-based chemistries as it’s reported up to 65% of a town’s water can be diverted to the mine vs. the people4. Nickel, manganese, and cobalt are a very good performance combination when combined with lithium, however, we can also use aluminum in the chemistry or go to a lithium-ion phosphate chemistry.
  1. Battery manufacturers are working diligently to extend the life of the battery which will require fewer metals to be mined.  The benefits are many: a) reduced cost of the battery pack, b) higher resale value of the vehicles, and c) reduced impact on the environment. And when combined with a no-cobalt chemistry, a reduction of the negative effects on developing nations, their communities and people. Contemporary Amperex Technology (also known at CATL) announced in June a 2M km battery5 and according to Reuters it may be a Lithium Phosphate chemistry6.
  1. Recycling used EV batteries within the Continent (whether N.A., EU, Asia, or S.A) using a hydrometallurgy process that results in up to 95% recovery rate of pure metals. This will be used in making new cathodes that go into new battery cells, reducing the need for more mined metals.  

Which e-bike companies are you currently working with to get more of their batteries recycled?

We are working from a list of 80+ e-bike companies as we establish this battery recycling program in Canada. As of today companies with unit market share volume adding up to roughly 70% have committed to being a part of the program and we anticipate this will get closer to 85% by the time we start January 1, 2021.

What are some of the ways that e-bike batteries have followed trends in the electric car market? 

The two industries are very much related starting with the minerals that make up the battery chemistry (nickel, manganese, and cobalt paired with lithium), the size of cylindrical cans (ex:18650 size), the use of battery management software to maximize the life of the battery, the connection of the batteries to the transmission and the use of a screen dashboard to inform the user. And in many cases, the same companies supply parts and/or finished components for both industries.

As battery life is extended for EVs over the coming decade, so will life extend for e-bikes.

Where things differ is in usage replacement. Electric-bikes are an alternate form of transportation when compared to public transit, car-pooling, or cars. [They increase] the number of commuters using electrified transportation while decreasing single-use car trips or requiring less public transit powered by diesel, and freeing up congestion. An EV on the other hand is a switch from an internal combustion engine vehicle – usually a one for one. This is positive for the environment, however still not good for congestion in cities.

Are there ways consumers can make their batteries last longer?

The great news about extending battery life lies within the battery’s software. Most are programmed to charge between 80% and 90% of capacity and drain to 60% of capacity. This sweet zone maximizes the number of recharge cycles the battery can handle before it no longer holds enough power to get you to the destination.

Start by following directions provided by the bike’s battery supplier as they know how the software performs. Other general guidelines include7:

  • Avoid parking bike in direct sunlight, even for short periods of time 
  • Storing the battery at temperatures between 0 and 20 deg C. when not in use. Avoid temperatures below -10° C (14°F) and above 30° C (86°F), as they shorten battery life.
  • Store for prolonged periods between 30% and 60% charge (vs. fully charged)
  • Handle with great care, including not dropping, forcing the battery pack open, or tampering with the wiring and software.

Are there ways batteries could be designed to last longer?

Go back 10 years and this was not even a topic; in a short span the conversation has gone from ‘Is lithium better than NiMH?’ to ‘Can lithium take us a million miles in a car?’

Commercialized in 1991 by Sony3, lithium’s use and longevity continue to be perfected. Remember when it made its way into laptops and cellphones? Its use in cars picked up acceptance when Tesla combined style, environmental benefits, and long-distance drives with the 2008 introduction of its roadster. Yamaha has been building e-bike motors since 1993 and Bosch brought their automotive expertise to the entire transmission in 2010, and by our own Call2Recycle forecast the United States will sell roughly 1.2M e-bikes in 2020, helped by behavior shifts due to COVID-19. That’s progress.

Lithium will be with us for this next generation of vehicles (bikes and cars) due to the amount of capital investment in the design and the ability to push the chemistry and battery management software further.

Batteries are everywhere.

What does the 5-15 year trajectory toward e-bike battery recycling look like?

Very healthy! January 1, 2021 the Canadian eBike battery recycling program begins where consumers can bring batteries back to collection sites – many of which will be bicycle retailers – for recycling. The batteries will be processed and made into other consumer products and eventually into new batteries.

In the United States, Call2Recycle will have both a pay-as-you-go style program where recycling boxes can be purchased for a flat fee including the cost of transport and recycling.  Bicycle retailers will be able to order these individually. And the company will be able to offer OEMs a network wide solution as well.

Companies like Bebat out of Belgium and GRS in Germany have similar initiatives for the European market, and in some instances more advanced than what historically was available in North America.

What are the risks involved in recycling lithium batteries? 

There is minimal risk in recycling as the process de-charges the battery and returns the metals to pure form at between a 50% and 95% recovery rate for pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy processes respectively.

Greater risk lies in not following the charging directions, damaging the battery by dropping or trying to alter its normal state, or by placing in the garbage which results in a landfill fire risk.

Lithion’s hydrometallurgy based process allows 95% of li-ion battery components to be recycled. Photo: Lithion

What can battery manufacturers do to benefit the cultures and economies where lithium is extracted? 

The analysis shows that producing an electric vehicle will result in 15% greater emissions versus an internal combustion engine vehicle, however, that within the first 6-16 months of driving this will be offset by the lower emissions from electric propulsion. Over the lifespan of that vehicle, we will see a 51% total reduction in emissions (manufacturing included).7

So we must proceed and focus our efforts on two equal goals:  a) cost reduction for creating the battery, making the vehicles comparable in price to current bike and car options which in turn will increase adoption, and b) reducing our impact on the environment and cultures of where the metals are mined.

Regarding the latter, this timely example of Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, pledging a contract to miners who can mine nickel in an environmentally sensitive manner has brought forward a commitment by Canada Nickel Co. They will build a $1B (USD) facility in Northern Ontario that will use hydroelectric power to reduce emissions and the use of serpentine rock that naturally absorbs carbon dioxide when exposed to air.8

Not only is the industry thinking in these terms, but so is government. Whether it’s the EU’s battery initiative or the Canadian Federal Government’s mandate to have a North American end-to-end solution, there are people working on this right now.

They’re even in a few dropper posts.

Do you know of regional or federal governments that are working to enforce lithium battery recycling?

The Canadian provinces of PEI, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia have battery recycling regulations in place that e-bike, eScooters, eSkateboard, and hoverboard batteries would fall within today. At the Federal government level, there is a strong initiative underway for Canada to participate in the lithium battery industry from mining all the way to recycling.

In the United States federal law requires used nickel cadmium and lead batteries be recycled, which is excellent however it does not help the e-bike industry as the latter uses lithium and nickel metal hydride chemistries. At a State level is where we will find further requirements governing rechargeable battery recycling with States like Vermont, Minnesota, and New York leading by example.  We understand California will begin writing legislation within the coming year that may require e-bike battery recycling.

The collection, recycling, treatment, and disposal of batteries in the European Union are governed by Directive 2006/66/EC, also known as the battery directive. E-bike batteries fall within this directive requiring OEMs/brand owners to be responsible for the batteries they put on market by funding the appropriate take-back and recycling initiative.9

Are there more sustainable alternatives to lithium batteries? 

We believe there is no perfect solution. It’s really a balancing act between finding a cleaner method of propulsion, which lithium batteries are, and the environmental and social impact of getting the minerals out of the ground.

If a lithium battery that propels a car will offer a 51% reduction in emissions over its life span, that’s a positive change to for the environment.9

For an e-bike, if all we do is ride the same distance and frequency as we did on a traditional bike, the benefit is not there and will actually be negative when taking into account mining of the battery. However, it appears the use of e-bikes is expanding the demographic that is cycling and the usage occasions. And if those trips come from public transit and car use, then it will be positive to the environment.

Unfortunately, there’s no battery for keeping the bike upright.

We would like to thank Jeff Haltrecht from Call2Recycle for sharing these insightful responses. Below is a list of the resources that Haltrecht used in his responses.

REFERENCES

  1. Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Processes: Research towards a Sustainable Course by Linda Gaines, 1 Argonne National Laboratory, 9700 South Cass Avenue, Argonne, IL 60439, United States
  2. Science Daily :  https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/10/191009082508.htm
  3. Wikipedia :  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium-ion_battery#cite_note-NAE-13 which also references the National Academy of Engineering
  4. Wired, published 2018.  Reference by Nature, November 6, 2019
  5. Bloomberg:  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-07/a-million-mile-battery-from-china-could-power-your-electric-car?utm_campaign=news&utm_medium=bd&utm_source=applenews
  6. Reuters:  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-tesla-batteries-exclusive/exclusive-teslas-secret-batteries-aim-to-rework-the-math-for-electric-cars-and-the-grid-idUSKBN22Q1WC
  7. UCS USA:  https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/11/Cleaner-Cars-from-Cradle-to-Grave-full-report.pdf#page=13
  8. Bloomberg:  https://www.bnnbloomberg.ca/canadian-miner-answers-elon-musk-s-plea-for-sustainable-nickel-1.1471252
  9. Bike EU :  https://www.bike-eu.com/laws-regulations/artikel/2010/08/eu-regulations-for-e-bikes-pedelecs-part-6-battery-directive-1018838
  10. Nature:  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-09784-z
  11. Bosch:  The eBike Battery Guide 2020, pages 24-25 and 28-29

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